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I Bought a House on Gratitude Street
And Other Insights on the Good Life
By J. Ellsworth Kalas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
I Bought a House on Gratitude Street
Some years ago I bought a house on Gratitude Street. I can't say when I made the purchase, because getting this house wasn't like signing a conventional contract. I seemed simply to ease into ownership, until I had a kind of squatter's rights mentality about the property and realized that now it was my own. But of this I am absolutely sure, that I never intend, ever again, to live anywhere else.
Before I go further I want to underline that I did, indeed, buy this house. Yet at the same time I've used the right word when I speak of "squatter's rights." The property was empty and I made it mine by building there, by cultivating the property, and by keeping it up. And I'm quite sure that if I ever allow the property to run down or the yard to be covered with weeds, I will lose my rights.
You can be sure that I never intend to let that happen. Because of course the longer I live here the more I love the place and the more I have invested in it. My only regret is the regret all of us have after we have established ourselves in a grand and lovely decision: I wonder why I didn't make the decision earlier.
In truth, I wasn't ready years ago. Most of us have to live a while in order to accumulate the wherewithal to buy a property, and goodness knows I've needed time to get my spiritual and emotional resources to the place where I could make a purchase like this one. People who buy a physical property usually need time to accumulate a down payment. But the skills needed to save tens of thousands of dollars are nothing compared with the insight, the self-knowledge, and the discipline that we need if we're to buy a house on Gratitude Street. A purchase on Gratitude Street involves a peculiar kind of spiritual enlightenment—the kind of enlightenment that, at least for most of us, involves maturity. Mind you, I'm not making a case for age. Some people buy a house on this street while they're still relatively young. I wasn't that perceptive. On the other hand, most people never move into the neighborhood, not even in their retirement years. I still insist, however, that getting this property is a matter of maturity, whatever the age—specifically, of coming to a place where we're able to stand the shock of knowing some crucial facts about ourselves.
The biggest of which is this: that essentially everything we have is a gift. If you insist on holding to the conviction that you're a self-made person, you'll never buy property on Gratitude Street. That's where maturity comes in. Because maturity involves humility and humility is very hard to come by. Often it comes to us only by way of a fair number of defeats. And the defeats themselves are not enough; we must come to the place where we can admit our role in the defeat, in some cases even to acknowledge that the defeat or failure was primarily our own doing --none of this, "If it hadn't been for so-and-so, I wouldn't have made such a mess." We must come to the place where we stop looking for others to blame.
I'm not suggesting that everything that goes wrong in our lives is our own fault. Usually more than one person is required if we're to get a full-scale mess. But it's always difficult to see our personal role in our failures. At the same time it's crucially important to see at what points the fault is our own, since we can't do much about the part others have played in our failures. It's foolish to waste our time looking for co-conspirators in our misfortunes when we can't do anything to remedy the errors or evil intentions of others. Rather, recognize the measure of our responsibility in the pain we've suffered, do what we can to remedy it or to see that it doesn't happen again, and move on. This calls for both self-knowledge and humility.
And then we must move to the place where we can see what others have done to make our lives better. Some are big and some are small. The high school teacher who was my debate coach is big. I can never be grateful enough for the demanding way he compelled me to believe in excellence—a concept difficult for a sixteen-year-old but that F. O. Racker drilled deep into my soul. Likewise, I owe a debt, but a smaller one, to school friends who taught me little lessons along the way that rubbed off some of my rough edges—and while my debt to each one is relatively small, the cumulative effect is very large. I owe a large debt to those individuals who spoke key words at just the right time—and a smaller debt to those persons who prepared the soil of my soul for the key word by speaking preparatory words at less sensitive moments in my journey.
I sometimes think that deprivation provides especially good soil for feelings of gratitude. During my growing-up years I had very few economic, educational, or social advantages, so any favor that came my way made a deep impression. Some of my school friends (though not those in my geographical neighborhood) had professional parents who were college graduates. The only college graduates I knew were my schoolteachers and my minister. I wonder who first planted in my soul the idea that someday I might go to college. How was it that I became so enthralled with the idea of college that I devoured boys' novels about prep school and college life? I will never know who planted that mustard seed of a dream in my soul, but it was a seed that grew into a sturdy plant so that all of the winds of poverty and disparagement couldn't uproot it. I am grateful beyond expression to that unknown, unremembered person or persons who told me I should and could go to college someday.
But deprivation alone won't make one grateful. Some use it as an excuse for continued failure and disappointment. And when we rise above deprivation, it can easily make us small and mean inside so that after gaining a diploma or some other measure of success we boast that we've done it ourselves, and that anyone else could do the same if only they'd work as hard as we did. I am impressed, in another way, by people who have grown up in the contours of privilege, where life's favors are commonplace and easily taken for granted, but who nevertheless have a spirit of gratitude. Gratitude by no means depends on circumstances alone, either positive or negative.
Sometimes a particular experience makes the issue of gratitude so clear that we can almost date it. I remember a friend of my teenage years who, though he was only in his midtwenties, had spent two years in a tubercular sanatorium, at times on the edge of death. He said one day as he was sipping a glass of water at a kitchen sink, "I never drink a glass of water—never!—without thanking God that I'm alive. Drinking water reminds me how close I was to death." The water wasn't Perrier. It wasn't even blessed by an ice cube. Just a glass of lukewarm water from a 1940s kitchen spigot, but an impetus to gratitude.
There's no doubt but that gratitude is helped by contrast and comparison. I'm grateful for an operating automobile because I've had some that were not dependable. I'm thankful for emergency roadside service because at an earlier time in my life I jacked up an automobile many times to change flat tires. I am grateful for sunshine because I've known rain, for friendship because I've experienced loneliness, for laughter because I've cried. These days, when I have enough, I remember with gratitude the times when I had nothing. In truth, I feel sorry for some of my acquaintances who don't know when they have enough. This, in itself, is a tragic poverty.
Gratitude that is not expressed is meaningless. Gratitude is not complete if it is simply a feeling within one's bosom. Unfortunately, however, we often leave gratitude in that unfinished state. This is because gratitude itself is such a warm and fuzzy feeling that we think the feeling is itself the essence of gratitude when in truth the feeling is just the beginning. To feel thankful and to do nothing about it, to express our thanks to no one, forces gratitude into a stillbirth.
Gratitude must have an outlet. Gratitude unexpressed is gratitude unfulfilled, and it will never buy a house on Gratitude Street.
Gratitude can begin at the simplest level, but it eventually needs a rather profound base. Our parents were right when they insisted, "Johnny, say thank you to the nice lady." Unfortunately, some allow their thank-you to stop at this perfunctory level, with no feeling accompanying the words. Such a thank-you becomes an insult rather than a social favor. An insincere thank-you or a thoughtless one is an oxymoron because the basic ingredient in "thank you" is the feeling of gratitude. But of course it is much easier to teach children a phrase than to teach them an attitude. The attitude is caught from an atmosphere lived out by others and then undergirded by the knowledge that our lives are made rich every day, every hour, by things others living and dead have done and are doing for us.
So we recognize these favors and we give thanks. Someone invites us to go through a door first: we're grateful and we show it. At a moment of traffic congestion a driver waves us ahead and in gratitude we wave a thank-you. We feel better for that driver's kindness, and still better for letting him or her know that we're grateful. The person who accepts such kindnesses without acknowledgement has stopped the flow of goodness and made the world smaller. Why do some people find it hard to confess that their day has been made easier by another person's generosity? Are any of us so important that we think we deserve an advanced place in line? How lovely that someone would let us in!
So, too, with the occasions for which we might argue that we owe no thanks. Should we thank the person who serves us at the checkout line? Some would reason that these persons are paid to take care of us, and indeed to do so pleasantly—and occasionally some of them aren't pleasant. Then why thank them? My answer: primarily because I'm glad for their service, no matter that they are paid to do it, and I am especially grateful when they do it graciously. But more than that, I have felt ever since moving to Gratitude Street that it is my privilege to extend the mood of the street on which I live. And I continue to marvel at the change that so often happens when I act with goodwill in these passing encounters. The airport attendant who is receiving the boarding pass looks up and smiles when I say with a smile, "Thank you!"—and the attendant often adds, "Have a good trip!" The checkout person is startled by goodwill. Not always, mind you. I'm a realist and a truthful man, so I acknowledge that some people are so imprisoned by their own problems that they seem to reject goodwill. No matter! What have I lost? Gratitude is its own reward.
It is also important to express gratitude to those with whom we have the closest association, especially those in our own household. The commonplace tasks of each day cease to be commonplace if we see them with gratitude. They receive the stature of honor they deserve. The tasks that every household member performs should not lose their value simply because they are always there. Sad to say, some persons in a family, a workplace, or a dormitory only get recognized when they miss their routine assignment—and then with a sharp word. Gratitude is a better way, and it improves one's own residence on Gratitude Street.
As gratitude becomes a way of life, we become conscious of reasons for gratitude that never occurred to us before. People and deeds come to mind, prompting us to make a telephone call, send an e-mail, or write a note. Do it! Some of these promptings come from a matter from last week or last month, and some come—quite unbidden— from half a lifetime ago. In such instances from the past, we often don't know if the person is still living and, if so, where to find them—and then we're grateful for the wonders of the world of the Internet, to assist our search. Often the "late" word of thanks has gained worth by the passage of time because the recipient is astonished to be remembered after so long.
But what of the feeling of gratitude that is too late? The person for whom we feel thankful is long dead or proves to be quite out of reach. What then?
I deal with this question every year, on schedule. I return to my hometown each summer, to see the two or three friends who still live there, but mostly to visit with my friendly ghosts. I go to the old neighborhoods, the schools I attended, the public libraries that graced my life and the churches that marked my spiritual pilgrimage, and I thank God for all the beautiful people I've known. I'm not sure how well I thanked them long ago; teenage boys are not always eloquent in expressing their gratitude. Do they hear me now, those long-ago friends, schoolteachers, ministers and Sunday school teachers? I don't know. I'm not enough of a metaphysician to have an explanation, and I find no clear words in the Scriptures. But this I know: I need to tell them. Gratitude compels me to speak their names, to recall the occasions, sometimes to apologize for my shortcomings in our relationships, and always to thank God for the divine kindness in allowing such special people to enter my life.
Always and increasingly I thank God. I need God for salvation and for a sense of forgiveness and for strength and insight to live the right kind of life; but above all, I need God as the recipient of my gratitude. I feel sad when I think of that remarkable writer from the early twentieth century, Katherine Mansfield, who insisted that she couldn't believe in a personal God—and from that posture wrote on an especially glorious day, "If only one could make some small grasshoppery sound of praise to someone—thanks to someone. But who?"
I am grateful for the Who, for God to whom I can give thanks. I am grateful not only to have a divine heart waiting to hear my gratitude, but also because so much of my gratitude is complex and interwoven. I try to determine the place some individual, living or dead, or some experience has played in my life and find that individuals and experiences interweave and intersect in such intricate beauty (and for me, sometimes, confusion) that I too fumble for a "small grasshoppery sound"—but with unfettered gratitude to God, who understands my feeling and who finds pleasure in my incoherence.
I have learned never to leave gratitude to chance. My place on Gratitude Street depends on constant awareness. So each morning, within the first half-hour of the day, I list the three or four matters from the previous day for which I am grateful. Almost always some person is in the list, as well as some event. Some are commonplace parts of everyday life, but somehow have particular significance on the day just past. So I list it. Some people appear on my list often, but for different reasons and with a different contour to their beauty.
And I am specific. It isn't enough to say, "For all my blessings." Name them! "Name them one by one," as a nineteenth-century hymn writer put it. Was yesterday a perfect fall day? Then give some particulars to the word of thanks. Was lunch special? Say why. Did you pass safely through a hard place? Recall it, and be glad.
Several years ago, on a Thanksgiving Eve when Mrs. Kalas and I couldn't find a worship service to attend, we made our own. The practice has blessed us ever since. We sing or recite the words to some of the loveliest hymns of thanksgiving, then with eyes closed and with hearts open, we begin alternately to give thanks—usually for one item at a time, sometimes with only a phrase and at others with a whole paragraph, but never for long, because what one of us says evokes a thought from the other and the flow of gratitude needs immediate expression. In this exercise we leave no room for a petition; it is time for thanks and for thanks alone. Every year we are astonished at the matters that come to mind, astonished at all the goodness that attends our lives, goodness that sometimes we hadn't recognized when it happened, and goodness that in retrospect is lovelier than ever.
I have come to realize that while love is wonderful, gratitude has a place all by itself, because gratitude is love with a memory. And of course gratitude allows no place for repayment because gratitude needs no reward. The heart knows that it is privilege enough to live one's life on Gratitude Street.CHAPTER 2
Keep Confessed Up
Many of life's most memorable lessons come without our recognizing the lesson until years later. Such lessons come not so much as "aha moments" as an accumulation of experiences, conversations, and reading that add up, we hardly know how, to a special way of looking at life. But some lessons come packaged within a particular conversation or in a specific individual. We remember not only the insight itself, but the person and the circumstances of delivery.
For me, in this instance, it was the summer of 1941. I had been chosen to travel with a male quartet, four men ages eighteen to twenty-nine who were serving as goodwill ambassadors for a small religious school. America was on the precipice of entry into World War II that summer, but most people were avoiding the thought, including the four of us. We knew our assignment, and we loved it. We were scheduled to travel through fifteen states in fifteen weeks, from Missouri to Minnesota and from Pennsylvania to Wyoming, singing in churches, usually in one-night stands. But when we arrived in Terre Haute, Indiana, it was to spend the whole weekend there, and since there was no service on Saturday evening, Saturday came as a lovely, carefree day, with time to talk and to listen.
Excerpted from I Bought a House on Gratitude Street by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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